By Frank Bruni
New York Times
I never doubted that Hillary Clinton had many talents.
I just didn't know that seamstress was among them.
There were moments in the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night when she threaded the needle as delicately and perfectly as a politician could.
The debate's moderator, Anderson Cooper, noted that she had told some audiences that she was a progressive but extolled her moderation in front of others. Wasn't she just a chameleon, flashing whatever colors suited her at a given moment? "I'm a progressive, but I'm a progressive who likes to get things done," she said strongly but not stridently. "I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground." It was a practiced line — so practiced that she used it, somewhat awkwardly, a second time an hour later. But it was also a well-crafted line.
Like her main rival onstage, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, she had complaints about our country. Unlike Sanders, she communicated an unshakable pride in it nonetheless.
Sanders said America should look to Denmark. Clinton countered: "We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America." Even when she was confronted anew by her vote in the Senate long ago to authorize the invasion of Iraq, she was neither defiant nor apologetic, steering a smooth midcourse by recalling that at debates in 2008, Barack Obama had attacked her for that. "After the election," she pointed out, "he asked me to become secretary of state. He valued my judgment." The subject of Iraq caused her less grief than Sanders suffered on gun control, when not only Clinton but also Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, rejected his explanation of votes in the Senate against various bills and his insistence that he was representing rural areas with gun cultures, not a nationwide electorate. It was clumsy, because he presents himself as a creature of pure principle, immune to political convenience.
But on Tuesday night an odd sort of role reversal occurred. For much of the debate, Sanders somehow came across as the embattled incumbent, targeted by the other four candidates, while Clinton came across as the energetic upstart.
He seemed bowed, irascible. She seemed buoyant, effervescent. It was as poised a performance as she has finessed in a long time, and while I've just about given up making predictions about this confounding election — I never thought Donald Trump would last so long, and I never saw Ben Carson coming — I think Clinton benefited more from Tuesday's stage than Sanders did.
She mixed confidence and moments of passion with instances of humor, and her manner was less didactic and robotic than it can often be. From Cooper and from the four men bookending her at the lecterns, she had everything thrown at her: Iraq, Benghazi, her coziness with Wall Street, her personal wealth.
But she was seldom rattled, although the discussion of her use of a home-brewed server for her emails as secretary of state did prompt a visible stiffening of her posture, a conspicuous strain in her smile. Will she ever, ever find language that takes full ownership of her mistake and that puts real flesh on her continued claim that she is being as transparent as possible? It was possibly her worst moment.
It was perhaps Sanders' best. Surprisingly, he called for an end to talk about the emails, saying there were more important issues to focus on. High-mindedness met unusual campaign-trail generosity and gallantry. Clinton laughed and beamed. They shook hands, and I half expected a hug.
The debate isn't going to change the fortunes of Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, who were at the edges of the stage and will remain on the edges of the race. O'Malley might benefit an iota and grew bolder as the night progressed.
Sanders grew redundant, returning with questionable frequency to a single issue — greed and income inequality — that made him sound like a one-note candidate. He is 100 percent right to question corporations and trumpet the plight of the middle class. But he does so as more of a firebrand, calling for a "political revolution," than as someone who can be trusted to make meaningful progress.
Clinton had her own redundancies, saying twice if not thrice as often as was necessary that she would be the first female president. She has gone from sidestepping her gender in 2008 to roaring about it now.
Apart from that, she was mum when silence served her best and fiery when that was the right call — for instance, when she vowed to "take the fight to the Republicans." And she benefited from the visual contrast when she stood side by side on TV next to Sanders, with his slight hunch, his somewhat garbled style of speech, and a moment when he cupped his hand behind his ear, signaling that he hadn't heard the question.
He evoked yesterday. Despite many decades in the political trenches, she didn't. It was a nifty trick. Turns out she's a bit of a sorceress as well.